A while ago, I took a “10% off” voucher with me to Halfords. I bought an item with a marked price of £30. At the checkout, I was served by a young man whose badge identified him as the Store Manager. When I presented the voucher he excused himself to run up to his office to fetch a calculator to work out what to charge me.
I never thought I’d be able to top that story until yesterday, when I bought six large rockery stones from our local garden centre. They were priced at two for £7. At the checkout was a young lad, probably a student making some money at the weekend. He had his barcode reader at the ready, but quickly realised that was no use for my items as rockery stones don’t allow for any kind of label. He looked for them on his system, and didn’t find them so I tried to help by saying “they’re £7 a pair”. He looked at me in puzzlement and said “There’s three in a pair, right?”. I refrained from asking him where he put the third sock when he put on a pair of socks in the morning. In fact, I just didn’t know what to say for a moment. He did a mental calculation, and rang up £10.50. I asked him how he worked that out, saying “it’s £7 per pair, six stones is three pairs at £7 so I need to pay £21”. That threw him completely, so he trotted off to find another member of staff. He came back with a chap in his forties, who quickly rang up £21 and took my money.
I guess it was partly my fault for the way I expressed myself. Given that I’ve already encountered many young shop assistants who have no idea what a dozen (or half-dozen) may be, then I should not have used such an esoteric term as “pair”. If I were simply to mock these folk for not knowing things that I think should be common knowledge then I would be missing the point. What I actually feel is despair, because we can apparently put our children through ten years of compulsory education at the end of which, despite year after year of exam grade distributions increasingly skewing towards the A* end of the spectrum, many youngsters emerge unable to do simple arithmetic.
As with so many things, my guess is that much of the blame lies at the door of our politicians who, instead of ensuring the results we all want, spend most of their time in spinning about how much they spend on education, or how elitest they aren’t. In a world where we need to be competitive in industries that need brains and not brawn, this is a systemic problem that dwarfs issues like Brexit.